Henri Rousseau. The Sleeping Gypsy. 1897

Henri Rousseau The Sleeping Gypsy 1897

  • The Museum of Modern Art, Floor 5, Collection Galleries

Rousseau, a toll collector for the city of Paris, was largely a self-taught painter, although he had ambitions of entering the Academy. This was never realized, but the sharp colors, fantastic imagery, and precise outlines in his work—derived from the style and subject matter of popular print culture—struck a chord with a younger generation of avant-garde painters. Rousseau described the subject of The Sleeping Gypsy thus: "A mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic."

Gallery label from 2012.

As a musician, the gypsy in this painting is an artist; as a traveler, she has no clear social place. Lost in the self-absorption that is deep, dreaming sleep, she is dangerously vulnerable—yet the lion is calmed and entranced. The Sleeping Gypsy is formally exacting—its contours precise, its color crystalline, its lines, surfaces, and accents carefully rhymed. Rousseau plays delicately with light on the lion's body. A letter of his describes the painting's subject: "A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic. The scene is set in a completely arid desert. The gypsy is dressed in oriental costume." A sometime douanier (toll collector) for the city of Paris, Rousseau was a self-taught painter, whose work seemed entirely unsophisticated to most of its early viewers. Much in his art, however, found modernist echoes: the flattened shapes and perspectives, the freedom of color and style, the subordination of realistic description to imagination and invention. As a consequence, critics and artists appreciated Rousseau long before the general public did.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 29.
Oil on canvas
51" x 6' 7" (129.5 x 200.7 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim
Object number
Painting and Sculpture

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This work is included in the Provenance Research Project, which investigates the ownership history of works in MoMA's collection.

The artist (after Salon des Indépendants, Paris, 1897)
Private collection (charcoal merchant), Paris. Until early 1924
Louis Vauxcelles, Paris. Early 1924
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler/Galerie Simon, Paris. By February 1924
John Quinn, New York. Purchased from Kahnweiler (through Henri-Pierre Roché), February 16, 1924 - until his death, on July 28, 1924
Estate of John Quinn, 1924 - 1926
Sold at auction, Collection John Quinn sale, Paris, Hotel Drouot, October 28, 1926
Henri Bing, Paris. Purchased at Drouot in 1926
Mme E. Rockstuhl (Ruckstuhl-Siegwart collection), Kussnacht-am-Rigi (near Lucerne), Switzerland. Purchased from Henri Bing in 1926 - 1939
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased from Mme E. Rockstuhl-Siegwart by Mrs. Simon Guggenheim as a gift to the Museum, December 1939

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